Preview the Sunday Scriptures with your kids so they can better hear the Word of God during Mass—and yes, even younger children can benefit from the practice. Here’s what to do.
by Jerry Windley-Daoust
For many years now, our family has been reading the Scriptures for Sunday’s Mass the night before—or sometimes, in a pinch, in the car on the way to church. It’s been a powerful practice: hearing the Word of God twice, plus taking time to talk about what we’re hearing, has helped all of us truly “hear” God’s Word with our hearts, not just our ears. And there have been other benefits, too:
- Our younger children are better able to focus on the Liturgy of the Word during Mass (because they’re listening for key words and phrases).
- Our older kids and teens have developed a deeper appreciation of the connections between the Scriptures, the Mass, and the patterns and cycles of the liturgical year.
- Over time, it’s helped our kids become more fluent with the Bible in general.
- And it’s helped them learn how to pray with the Scriptures.
All of that’s important to us, because as the Church says, ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ. Truly hearing the Word of God and receiving it into our hearts better conforms us to the person God made us to be.
Drawing on our own experience, here are some tips to help you get started with this practice at home.
Helpful to Have
Obviously, in order to preview the Sunday Scriptures, you need to know what they’re going to be. There are several ways to get the readings in advance:
- The Roman Liturgical Calendar page of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ website provides links to the readings for any day on the calendar.
- The Sunday Website at St. Louis University provides not only links to the Sunday readings, but a wealth of other resources for praying, reflecting on, and understanding the Scriptures.
- Subscribe to Magnifikid!, a Sunday missal just for Catholic kids. It works well with kids who can read in the 7-12 age range. You can use it to preview the Sunday Scriptures, then your child can bring it to Mass with them in order to follow along with the readings and the order of the Mass.
- Subscribe to a daily missal for adults such as Magnificat or Give Us This Day. We’re partial to Give Us This Day, which is produced by Liturgical Press, but others prefer Magnificat. You can request sample copies of both before subscribing.
Sometimes it’s helpful to have a copy of the Bible on hand—specifically, the New American Bible, Revised Edition (NABRE), which is the translation used for Mass in the United States. Its extensive introductory articles and footnotes can help make sense of some of the stranger readings. Saint Mary’s Press publishes several editions of the NABRE specifically designed for families, teens, and older kids.
If you or your kids are just getting started exploring the Bible, the following graphic might be helpful to you:
When to Make It Happen
One barrier to starting new family faith formation practices is scheduling—when is it going to happen? Here are some possibilities:
- during your regular family prayer time, if you have one;
- during lunch or supper the day before;
- at bedtime the day before;
- during a special Sunday breakfast;
- in the car on the way to Mass.
What to Do
Our five kids span about ten years, so when we preview the Scriptures together, we usually mix in a few different approaches.
Babies and Toddlers
If your oldest kids are still really little, preview the Scriptures anyway—but just for yourself (and your spouse). Clearly, babies and toddlers aren’t going to understand a word of what you’re saying, but they’ll pick up on the fact that Mom and Dad are reading out of a book and talking together. More importantly, beginning now will help you establish a family habit that your kids will grow into. Plus, by the time they’re old enough to participate, you will have been through the full three-year cycle of readings at least once.
Younger children (ages 4-7)
Younger children may not fully comprehend the readings, but you can read them out loud in their presence anyway to acclimate them to the practice. As they mature, they’ll begin to pick up on different elements. For example, we always begin our readings with the appropriate introduction: “A reading from ___.” And one of the first things our kids pick up on is the names of the various Gospels.
Once you’ve read the readings for yourself and your older kids, choose one of the readings to re-present for your younger children:
- If the reading is a little story (e.g., Jesus calming the storm at sea), retell it using words your children will understand. You can even add dramatic touches: make faces, sound effects, gestures, and so on to bring the story to life.
- If the reading is more abstract (e.g., a poem or wisdom saying), select a phrase or sentence or concept to share with younger children.
- If you have older kids or teens, ask them to re-tell the story for their younger siblings. Older kids enjoy the leadership role, and it reinforces the reading in their memories.
- If the reading is very visual, try finding art that depicts it, and use the art as an aid to re-telling the story.
After you’ve re-presented the reading, take a minute or so to talk about it. Some starter questions might include:
- What happened in the story?
- What is God saying to us in this reading?
- How did the people in the reading feel?
- What do you think happened next?
Be prepared for younger children to have some interesting thoughts—and for some major detours in the conversation!
Older kids (ages 8-12)
Invite older kids to read the Sunday readings our loud for the family as soon as they’re able to read well. Beginning readers can sit next to Mom or Dad to get prompts on hard words.
Older kids are also ready to play the “What’s the Theme?” game. Typically, the first reading and the Gospel on Sundays during Ordinary Time have some connection or common theme. For example, the Old Testament reading may be a text from the Book of Wisdom about the virtues of humility, and then the Gospel might be Jesus also speaking about humility. Or we might hear about Elijah miraculously providing the widow and her son with bread during a famine, and then we might hear about Jesus multiplying the loaves and fishes. Sometimes we hear an Old Testament prophecy, then we get to see how it is fulfilled by Jesus in the Gospel. The psalm response is sometimes a helpful key to figuring out the common theme. In any case, teasing out the connection between the readings can deepen their understanding and appreciation of the texts.
Older kids can also be taught rudimentary forms of lectio divina. Ask them what they thought was the most interesting word, phrase, or sentence from the readings, or what incident or concept stood out for them. Explore their insights, and teach them to discern God speaking to them through the Word and their own response. You can tell them quite explicitly that just as the Holy Spirit inspired the authors of the sacred texts to write down what we need to know for our salvation, so too that same Holy Spirit guides us in interpreting God’s Word for our own lives.
We don’t usually focus much on the second reading with kids in this age range unless it has a pretty clear and direct message (the letters of James and Peter often fit into that mold). Many of the letters of Paul are extended theological reflections that are usually beyond kids of this age.
Questions to ask kids this age include:
- What was the reading about?
- What part did you like best? What didn’t you like?
- How did the reading make you feel?
- What is God calling us to do as a family?
If you’re starting from scratch with your teens, you may want to begin with some of the simple practices outlined above.
As they become more experienced, teens can begin to explore the readings in new ways:
- Take time to pray with the readings. Emphasize that this is the living Word of God—”living” because God uses the words of the Scriptures to speak to us here and now when we pray over those words. Introducing a more formal form of lectio divina would be appropriate at this age.
- Make connections between the readings and what’s going on in the world. Invite teens to explore how God’s Word affirms some of the values of modern society—but also how it challenges mainstream values.
- Focus more on the second reading. The second reading, typically from one of the New Testament epistles (or the Acts of the Apostles or the Book of Revelation), typically does not follow the common theme of the first reading and the Gospel. Instead, during Ordinary Time the Church moves through the New Testament epistles sequentially. If you follow the second reading from week to week, your teens will see Paul (or other authors) unfold theological insights.
- Spend more time trying to place the readings in context, both within the larger canon of Scripture, the teachings of the Church, and the historical setting in which they were written.
Some Essential Points for Helping Your Kids Understand Scripture
You don’t need to be a Scripture scholar to preview the Sunday readings with your kids, but it does help to keep in mind a few basic principles that guide Catholics in interpreting the Scriptures.
The Holy Spirit is key to understanding the Scriptures. God is the “author” of Sacred Scripture, inspiring its human authors through the action of the Holy Spirit (Catechism 105, 106). But the Scriptures are no ordinary text; they are “living” because the same Holy Spirit who inspired the Bible’s human authors also opens our minds to understand God’s Word and its relevance for us today (Catechism 108).
The Bible conveys religious truths. The books of Scripture “firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures” (Catechism 107, quoting Dei Verbum). The boldface is my emphasis, because it’s essential that kids realize that the purpose of the Bible is to draw us ever closer to God. “The Bible is the story of God’s relationship with the people he has called to himself,” says the U.S. Conference of Catholic bishops. “It is not intended to be read as history text, a science book, or a political manifesto.” As we read the Scriptures with our kids, then, we’re always asking: What is the religious truth God wants us to know here? This is extremely helpful when difficult texts.
Read the Bible in its historical and literary context. Teasing out that religious truth often requires us to consider what the human authors intended. “In order to discover the sacred authors’ intention, the reader must take into account the conditions of their time and culture, the literary genres in use at that time, and the modes of feeling, speaking and narrating then current” (Catechism 110). It is important to understand, for example, that the Book of Job is a piece of fiction written for the purpose of theological reflection on the suffering of innocent people. Similarly, understanding that women were not supposed to address strange men in public (particularly not while they were alone!) sheds new light on the story of Jesus and the Saritan woman at the well.
That’s not an exhaustive list of principles for reading and understanding the Scriptures; for a really good summary, take five minutes to look at the list of ten points to help Catholics understand the Bible over at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. It’s brief, about a five-minute read, but contains principles every Catholic should know.
And bonus points to you if you go on to read the Catechism of the Catholic Church‘s section on Sacred Scripture—it’s a relatively easy 20-minute read, and hits all the most important points.